War Weddings: Romance Amidst Chaos

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Couples married during World War II had to keep things simple, but that didn’t stop them from having a beautiful wedding day and a wonderful marriage. (Image: Brevort via Flickr CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

World War II was the biggest and deadliest war in history, yet in the midst of chaos, couples around the world still managed to fall in love and found ways to celebrate their relationships. Despite the food rationing and tense atmosphere, proposals and weddings went on as usual. 

In fact, there was a sudden increase in the number of weddings, as many couples were anxious to formalise their relationships in the face of an uncertain future. In 1942 alone, 1.8 million weddings took place, and two-thirds of the grooms were newly enlisted soldiers in the military.

During the war, draft notices were frequently given with little time for preparation, so wedding plans had to be made quickly to accommodate the groom preparing for service, or home only on brief leaves. There were no Bahamas or romantic cruise ship honeymoons. If time even allowed for that luxury, it was spent close to home. 

Syd and Enid met at a church service in Liverpool when they were 20 years old, and got married in the same building on March 31, 1951. They recently celebrated 70 years of marriage. 

In comparing their ceremony to the lavish and meticulously-planned weddings of modern times, Enid said: “We didn’t think about things like that back in those days. After we met at church nobody really proposed to anybody, we just took it for granted we would get married.”

Many weddings during the war were very simple and modest. Fancy imported flowers were rare, so brides and their maids were adorned with common flowers found locally, such as lilies, carnations, and chrysanthemums. Even after World War II, Syd and Enid did not want a white wedding as there was still post-war rationing. Syd mentioned that “If you went on a honeymoon you had to show the landlady your ration book.” 

In terms of cakes, people had to find creative ways to replace the rationed ingredients, including sugar, which was rationed all the way until September 1953. Butter-free cakes that used nutmeg and cinnamon for flavouring became popular. In order to have enough food and drinks to serve at a reception, ration coupons were often pooled. If that was not possible, some couples would just dine at a restaurant after their ceremony.

During war and post-war periods, dresses were usually simple in shape with few ruffles, in order to save on fabric. In Enid’s case, she wore a suit, hat and a string of pearls on her wedding day. The groom would often wear his military uniform in wedding photos rather than spend extra money on a suit. 

When U.S. Army radio operator Temple Leslie Bourland bailed out of a plane over Germany during World War II, little could he have imagined that the parachute that saved his life would soon become his bride’s wedding dress. Wartime shortages necessitated recycling or reusing many goods, sometimes including the parachutes that soldiers brought home as souvenirs. The bride’s resourceful aunt simply cut around the bullet holes to make this dress. (Image: national museum of american history via Flickr CC BY-NC 2.0)

Bridal gowns made from parachute silk also became a trend during the war and continued after the war ended. Military parachutes were often made of nylon or silk because of their fiber strength. Women would keep the cream-colored parachutes that saved their fiancés’ lives as mementos and make them into bridal gowns. This was not only an excellent way to recycle scarce resources, but was also a way to honor the men’s service. One man even offered his parachute in his proposal to his girlfriend, as it provided material for her gown. 

Even the granddaughter of former US President Theodore Roosevelt, Theodora Roosevelt, followed wartime austerity at her wedding. In ordinary times, it might have been an important society wedding, but The New York Times reported that there were no attendants at the couple’s ceremony and it was only observed by immediate relatives. Instead of a typical wedding gown, the bride wore “a brown faille suit, and straw hat with brown veiling.”

Despite the death and destruction throughout World War II, life went on, love prevailed, and couples married. Even though the ceremonies had to be simple and inexpensive, they still became treasured memories of the happiest of days. Few would disagree that the most important part of a wedding is the people, not the dresses or the flowers. 

When bridal gowns are made from parachutes, it marks a determination in humankind to make the most of a bad situation. Those who can maintain resilience and a loving heart, in good times and in bad, will be able to survive through wars and (70 years of) marriage.